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A Beeb’s Eye View of Iran
Media coverage Chamberlain could love.


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London — The reliably bizarre and bellicose rhetoric of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must have some BBC editors reaching for their medication.

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Last week the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran has ignored a U.N. Security Council deadline to suspend its enrichment of uranium. In fact, IAEA head Mohamed El Baradei said that Iran was accelerating its enrichment program, from research-scale to industrial-scale. That means, despite official denials, that the Islamist government in Tehran is inching closer to possessing a nuclear weapon. Key members of the Security Council met Monday in London to consider a new U.N. resolution against Iran.

It looks like one will be needed: “Iran has obtained the technology to produce nuclear fuel,” declared the Iranian leader, “and Iran’s move is like a train…which has no brake and no reverse gear.”

How is a modern news organization — committed to rational discourse, conventional diplomacy, and a secular view of the universe — to approach all of this? For now, it seems, by downplaying the most unseemly and unsavory elements of the regime in Tehran. Better to focus on U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney — a figure who seems to frighten European elites as much any Iranian mullah — and alleged American war plans. Better, it seems, to shy away from the hard questions and (to quote Oscar winner Al Gore) the “inconvenient truths” about Iran.

Here are a few that come to mind, which rarely seem to surface in the BBC’s coverage:

Iran sits atop the world’s second-largest oil reserves, yet the country is rationing gasoline. Why is Tehran so desperate to develop nuclear energy to overcome its manmade energy crisis?

Three leaders of the European Union — France, Britain, and German — have spent over two years in negotiations with Iran to gently persuade the government to halt uranium enrichment, all to no effect. Why?

Why has Iran refused Russia’s offer to help build a nuclear facility to ease its energy problems?

Iran is the only member state of the United Nations in recent memory to call for the destruction of another member state — Israel. Why are there no consequences for violating the clear mandate of the UN Charter? (Article Two: “All nations shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity…of any state.”)

Iran proudly maintains an official “death to America” day. Why should America trust Iran with a nuclear weapon?

Iran ranks as the world’s “most active state sponsor of terrorism,” providing funding, weapons, training, and sanctuary to terrorist groups in the Middle East. What exactly is the “international community” doing about that?

Human-rights organizations put Iran on their shortlists of the world’s most repressive governments. Why don’t we hear more from Iranian dissidents or exiles about life under the regime?

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she is “prepared to meet my counterpart or the Iranian representative at any time, if Iran will suspend its enrichment and reprocessing activities.” Iran refuses, yet the United States is often portrayed as the undiplomatic spoiler in this crisis. Why?

The Iranian president, a radical Shia Muslim, says he has a “divine mission” to hasten the apocalypse with the appearance of the Shia messiah, the “hidden imam.” How might possession of a nuclear weapon aid Iran in this mission?

The BBC, it should be noted, did not shrink back from covering last weekend’s anti-war rally in London. At least 10,000 people marched to Trafalgar Square to protest the American-led war in Iraq and to call for the complete withdrawal of British troops. Once again, the political left (Stop the War Coalition) marched in lock step with Islamic militants and their sympathizers (the British Muslim Initiative, etc.). Placards of George W. Bush as “the world’s number one terrorist” and Tony Blair as “war criminal still at large” littered the landscape. Leftist MP George Galloway — expelled from the Labour Party for his extremist views — received unencumbered air time for his usual noxious bile against the United States and Great Britain.

Indeed, one has to wonder who writes the slogans for the antiwar crowd. “They [Western democracies] are concerned about the collapse of their hegemony and hollow power.” Those were the words, in fact, of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, uttered the same weekend.

No one seemed to notice, but back in Tehran — at almost the exact moment that London protestors were trashing America and Britain for their international “aggression” — the Iranian military had launched a long-range rocket. It apparently was intended to show off Iran’s ability to build intercontinental ballistic missiles — technology happily supplied by Russia, China, and North Korea. Yet the London demonstrators carried on, unfazed and unhinged from the reality of Islamic extremists devoted to acquiring nuclear weapons.

One could almost hear the ghost of Chamberlain moaning in the midwinter assembly. Even in our post-9/11 era, it’s difficult for many Europeans — especially secular Europeans — to conceive of a nation-state driven by radical religious visions and hatreds. It’s more comforting to interpret Iranian belligerence in purely political or economic terms. It’s somehow more satisfying to place the burden of blame on the shoulders of the West.

The West has its contradictions, deep injustices, and cynical politics. America and Europe have enabled the animosities that now threaten the foundations of civilized life. And, yes, there is a self-fulfilling danger in viewing every Iranian action as part of a vast religious plot: There are Muslim voices for democratic reform in Tehran. There is real dissent and there are deep political and cultural divisions — dissent and divisions that leaders in the West should be keen to exploit.

Let’s try to exploit them, with all the diplomatic skill and nerve we have, but let’s do it with our eyes open. Let’s keep the untidy facts and troubling questions on the table. And let’s remember that time is not on our side.



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